With Gas At 4 Bucks A Gallon, Who'll Un-Pimp My Ride This Time?

The view when driving may be slightly obscured photo

"big engine, little car!" Image credit:Flicker, Stephen Bowler

Five years back I wrote an Earth Day Plea to car makers of the world: "Un-Pimp My Ride", making the point that all we need is smaller engines to make a cost saving, quantum leap in mileage improvement. I was chastised, of course, by the freedom of choice crowd - a crowd that predictably did not consider that those of us who'd prefer a smaller engine are given no such choice.Here's a few excerpts from what I wrote in 2005.

My Honda CVCC Wagon from the 1970's, bought a few years following the first Earth Day, had around 90 Horsepower, a manual transmission, five seats, and mileage in the mid-30's...

Given that today's average engines are, pound for pound, far more efficient than the one in my 1970's oil-shortage-busting Honda, imagine how efficient a basic model could get with a well designed four-banger and a manual transmission?...

The reason we got to this... is a marketing environment where our attention is demanded with "performance" features that compete for consumer dollars. Every car is designed as a showroom advertisement for itself, and horsepower is the foundation for it all. More horsepower, more weight, wasted gas. Its that simple.

To demonstrate, I borrowed the following plot from Wen Yang's Match Blog, which depicts the curvilinear, inverse relationship between horsepower and mileage for "32 cars in the 1973-74 model year."


"Is Horsepower of a Car Related to Its Mileage?"

Car marketers have have spent decades convincing US customers that life is better with a bigger engine. (Better largely meant blowing through the gas in a bumper-to-bumper commute.) The market distracted itself from the sound of the fuel pump by listening to talk radio hosts blame liberal environmentalists for not letting us 'drill here and drill now.'

Then, WHAM.
At 4-bucks a gallon, wallets are thin, China is driving the oil market, the President is told 'he better do something,' and images of the BP spill drag on like a hangover headache.

There is something the free market can do...now. No big Federal grant program is needed. Just un-pimp our rides.

Double Dare Ya.
We all know what would happen if an American car maker introduced compact or mid-sized models in the 90 to 120 hp range - for far less money than the equivalent pimped model.

  • Auto magazine reviewers would gasp and declare them dead on arrival.

  • Major stockholders would demand that heads roll.

  • Beltway pundits would drag out comparisons to the Yugo.

When gas hits five bucks or so a gallon, as it surely could by the end of this year, someone will offer cheap, un-pimped cars. Experts will then share with us their shock over low-hp cars selling faster than you can say cargo carrier from Korea. Very fitting when money is tight all around, but shocked they will be, nonetheless.

Lessons of history
A similar thing happened before, leading to Volkswagon and Honda and Datsun - now called Nissan - and Toyota all getting a toe-hold in the US market. All they had to do was increase mileage and meet emission standards simultaneously - something US makers were unable to do reliably.

I'm betting it will be Korean makers who gain the un-pimped market share. That sets up the scenario of innovative GM Volt vs Korean ICE retro. Wouldn't that be an epic battle for the future of personal transport?